Contesting patriarchy-as-governance: lessons from youth-led activism

Youth-led mobilisation has mocked and exposed patriarchal power by unmasking its politics of social control. Are we on the threshold of a new politics of gender creating cross-gender alliances around struggles against autocracy?

Deniz Kandiyoti
7 March 2014
Spanish civilians confronting police in 2011

The recent waves of citizen-led activism that swept the globe inspired numerous attempts to identify common drivers across diverse instances of public disobedience and protest.  Growing numbers of educated, unemployed, alienated youth, the humiliations  of autocracy, the authority- busting potential of the internet and social media, and the coming of age of Generation Y are among recurrent leitmotifs. These common denominators – broadly  related to the tensions between the global forces of neoliberalism seeking to expand the freedom of capital, and the forces of social resistance struggling to preserve and redefine community and solidarity - provide  an overly broad umbrella for phenomena  as diverse as the Arab uprisings, the Occupy movement, the indignados of Southern Europe, the student movement in Chile or the Gezi protests in Turkey.  Could the lure of the “global” be making us lose sight of more subtle and context specific idioms of discontent?

In this article, the fourth in a series of reflections on the Arab uprisings (and beyond), I explore the reasons behind the apparent anti-patriarchal thrust of struggles against authoritarianism in some parts of the MENA region, and pose a relatively neglected question: Are there any lessons to be drawn from youth-led activism for a new politics of gender?

At first sight, the answer would appear to be negative.  A mobilized citizenry was, first and foremost, demanding their social and political rights, clamouring for justice and freedom and an end to state violence and corruption. If and when gender issues came up - as they did in the context of the Arab uprisings - they were treated in a rather truncated manner, mainly to document levels of  women’s participation in popular protests, their subsequent exclusion from formal processes of transition and their exposure to increasing levels of violence. Feminism and women’s rights activism - considered by some as  “old politics” par excellence - appeared to elicit ambivalence, if not outright indifference, among members of a new insurrectionary generation. Yet this distancing was taking place against the background of widespread popular protests against gender-based violence, involving both men and women, who were plainly engaged in new forms of grass roots activism and social critique. How can we account for this state of affairs?  Is the language of feminism up to the challenge of capturing the new sensibilities and aspirations animating the actions and idioms of multitudes of youth, both male and female? Or do the lenses we train on the politics of gender inadvertently restrict our vision?

Patriarchy: now you see it, now you don’t

In the 21st century, pinning down the meanings, locations  and operations of patriarchy is no easy task. On the one hand, there are many who claim that women’s rights advocates, both at the international or local levels, are engaged in a rearguard battle against a global tide of growing conservatism, both religious and political. Patriarchy is not only deemed to be  alive and well but thriving under conditions of neo-liberalism, with women bearing the brunt of every new twist in global capitalism. The success stories of women who “ make it” in the corporate world are tempered by the knowledge that this passes the majority of women by in an increasingly unequal world. Yet, issues of social justice are easily overshadowed by passionate debates about the politics of representation with working class, black, ethnic, religious and sexual minority women all fighting for their particular corner in the oppression league.

There are those, on the other hand, who maintain that feminist norms and values, far from being marginal, have gained institutional power, most notably in the development of international criminal law aimed at prosecuting sexual violence. The term "governance feminism" has come to signify a reliance on state-centred forms of power and the promotion of a politics of respectability and political correctness that criminalizes and marginalizes certain practices and subjectivities. This has turned the discussion about patriarchy on its head, suggesting that the top-down enforcement of women’s rights has itself become an oppressive governance practice.

Transposed to contexts such as Egypt, governance feminism accrues even more sinister connotations. The women’s anti-violence movement may be interpreted, in this  perspective, as a collaboration between upper class feminists and a brutal  security state colluding around a class-specific politics of respectability that marginalizes and criminalizes working class masculinities and demonises the so-called “Arab street”- potentially demobilising class-based movements for democratic change. Although the focus on class is undoubtedly welcome, should we take manifestations of misogyny and violence in our stride so long as they emanate from “subaltern” quarters that are the target of state repression? And how do women’s rights activists in the MENA region, who have in most cases had a risibly meagre record of success in amending discriminatory legislation in their favour, share in the opprobrium of governance feminists who allegedly walk the corridors of power (a dubious proposition in itself) ?

Whilst old and new conventional wisdoms jostle for attention in academic and policy circles, we have been witnessing new spontaneous grass-roots movements where young men and women mobilize together to mock authority, and to condemn the repression and violence perpetrated by both state and non-state actors. If resistance follows and contests the terms of systems of power, anti-patriarchal contestations must surely flourish in contexts where the language of power and patriarchy are most intimately and explicitly intertwined.

Contestations from below: forms of domination, paths of resistance

The Green Movement in Iran, starting with the contested 2009 presidential elections, provided us with a rare spectacle. Majid Tavakoli, a student leader arrested after delivering a fiery speech against dictatorship, was alleged by pro-government news agencies to have been caught trying to escape dressed as a woman. A series of photographs showing him wearing a headscarf and chador were clearly intended to expose him as a coward, and to humiliate a hero of the student movement. This ploy backfired badly when an Iranian photographer invited men to post pictures of themselves wearing hejab on Facebook - which they did en masse, stating “We are all Majid”. This reaction hit two targets simultaneously; it ridiculed the regime’s transparent attempts to manipulate public opinion, whilst rebuffing its bid to enlist men into accepting that an association with femininity debases them.

Does a form of rule that explicitly targets the private and the policing of gender relations bring personal liberties and gender issues closer to the heart of democratic struggles? The answer appears to be resoundingly positive if the dizzying array of everyday forms resistance and defiance displayed by Turkish youth before, during and after the Gezi protests of the summer of 2013 are anything to go by. 

After three consecutive electoral victories Erdogan, who came to power on an ostensible “democratisation” ticket in 2002,  interpreted his mandate at the ballot box as a licence to rule by fiat. Adopting a hectoring and moralistic tone he attempted to regulate citizens’ private lives, from dictating how many children they should have, whether women should be allowed to have abortions and caesarean sections, to whether they could drink or manifest affection in public. The PM’s clearly stated intent to promote “a pious generation” was perceived by many as a thinly disguised bid to create a docile citizenry - obedient subjects who fear God, their head of state and their fathers. The saturation of public space with piety, a populist move undoubtedly meant to bind believers to the ruling party, appeared to backfire long before the regime’s alleged corrupt practices started making the headlines. For instance, the admonishments to behave decorously in public led to a “kiss-in” with couples locked in passionate embraces in public spaces like the subway. The news spread fast through the social media and youth remained undeterred by being denounced as “immoral” and members of “marginal groups”, or even attacked by groups of zealots.

When the PM announced, at the annual meeting of his deputies in November 2013, that he intended to take legal measures to prevent unmarried male and female students sharing dorms and apartments, again, protests spread like wildfire. Mixed sex groups started posing for photographs bearing protest banners on university campuses across the land, and a couple even came forward to incriminate themselves, applying to the public prosecutor’s office to be tried, only to have their case dismissed. Although sources of discontent are varied and deep ( environmental concerns, urban plunder, police brutality, censorship of the media and general lack of transparency), the head of state taking on the mantle of the strict pater familias  became the subject of  the most virulent lampooning and ridicule. Repeated acts of defiance, through the medium of music, performance and cartoons, alongside street protests, defined the contours of a lively sub-culture that corrodes patriarchal power by unmasking its political intent: “normalizing” patriarchy as a tool of governance. This form of protest goes to the heart of political culture in Turkey by shining a light on an idiom of power that transcends the secular/Islamic divide and traverses diverse mainstream political parties.

The Arab uprisings also revealed youth sub-cultures intent on democratic participation and a rejection of their elders’ conventional politics.  In Egypt, for instance, the spotlight was turned, as never before, on the political nature of violence, including gender-based violence.  This lifted the lid on the previously taboo topic of harassment in general, prompting the formation of  networks such as Harassmap, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, Tahrir Bodyguard and Imprint  that include young men in  their membership. Contesting Orientalist notions of essentially misogynistic Arab masculinities, young men have been more willing to take positions on women’s rights and to do so publicly.

Are there any grounds for imagining that these new voices for democratic change represent anything more than evanescent episodes of civic euphoria? The challenges of translating these aspirations into sustainable organizational forms and governance alternatives remain phenomenal. Yet, there are some harbingers of longer term transformations that cannot be ignored.

Old alliances, new crises

Although state practices are always gendered, there is a particularly explicit connection in the MENA region, across regime types, between the language of power and that of patriarchal authority. Power holders utilize the idiom of patriarchy to legitimise their regulation of citizens’ lives, to suppress dissent and to elicit consent. The patriarchal state enlists men in its project of rule by explicitly upholding male prerogatives over the control of women: honour crimes carrying lighter sentences and marrying one’s victim extenuating the crime of a rapist constitute pertinent examples. The exclusion of women from the realm of equal citizenship is plainly visible and enshrined in legislation to varying extents. The trade-off in abdicating authority to patriarchal state rule, even for men of popular classes who are themselves subordinated in the class hierarchy, is to retain control over the domestic and communal domains, a control deemed central to the exercise of masculinity.

This compact manifests itself in cross- party and cross- class alliances among men when the question of curtailing women’s rights or blocking reformist moves entailing their expansion are on the agenda (for instance, in Turkey a group of male MPs across political parties attempted to block the draft of a reformed civic code in 2000 on the grounds that equality in the family would lead to chaos and, in Egypt, the secular Wafd party, among others  readily joined the fray in calling for a restriction of women’s rights after the fall of Mubarak, giving the lie to the notion that Islamist parties hold a monopoly in this domain). The safeguard of male privileges (whether in the name of religion, the maintenance of social order or the integrity of the family) has acted as an important plank of populist consensus and cross-class alliances among men.

Are there any reasons to assume that these alliances might ever fracture and give way to budding cross-gender alliances in new struggles against various forms of autocracy?

Under conditions of neo-liberalism, most states have abdicated their paternalistic functions of provision of public goods and welfare. Many resort to crude ideological means to shore up their legitimacy, or deploy increasingly forceful methods of surveillance and coercion, or both, and cannot sustain the myth of the ruler as benevolent patriarch.  At the domestic level, the male provider role, one of the bedrocks of male privilege, is under significant strain. High male unemployment rates and increasingly precarious forms of employment coincide with a period when women’s aspirations and their public presence have never been higher. Notions of female subordination are no longer securely hegemonic.  Reliance on a new politics of masculinist restoration - a politics that requires systematic indoctrination (Islamic, nationalistic or mixtures of both), greater surveillance and higher levels of intrusion in citizens’ lives- becomes essential to the maintenance and reproduction of patriarchy. The contradictory pulls of the politics of masculinist restoration on the one hand, and anti-patriarchal resistance on the other, open up new fields of contestation for a new generation of men and women who are more fully alert to the intimate relations between authoritarian rule and forms of oppression based on gender, creed, ethnicity or sexual orientation. One of the lessons that youth activists - male and female - may have absorbed is that as long as the patriarchal social order is taken for granted, naturalized and not opened to question, citizenship must remain imperfect and democracy truncated.

Previous articles in this series written by Deniz KandiyotiPromise and peril: women and the 'Arab spring'Disquiet and despair: the gender sub-texts of the 'Arab spring'Fear and fury: women and post-revolutionary violence

To read the full collection of articles monitoring the uprisings and social movements in the Middle East and North Africa, providing a gendered analysis of developments across the region go to 50.50's platform Women and the 'Arab spring'

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